Friday, November 18, 2005
Believe it or not, Johnson still has a shot
By Rupen Fofaria Special to ESPN.com
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- The 2005 Nextel Cup trophy has all but been handed to Tony Stewart. Never mind that he has only a 52-point edge over Jimmie Johnson coming into the last race and that only 10 previous points races have been as close coming into the finale.
Perhaps there's good reason many consider Stewart a lock. After all, the odds aren't in Johnson's favor to catch and surpass -- no one has done it entering the last race trailing by more than 30 points. More daunting to Johnson's prospects is the stunning uniformity with which Stewart has competed -- averaging a finish of better than ninth and leading all racers with 17 top-fives and 25 top-10s.
"It's tough when you're chasing a guy like Tony," Johnson said. "[He and his team] haven't made many mistakes. Tony is going to run strong, and it's going to be five points here or there. That's just kind of the way it is."
Still, it has happened before. And were it to happen Sunday, how shocked could we rightfully be? After all, if Johnson has himself a day, leads the most laps and wins the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Stewart could run at his consistent habit, finish 10th and nonetheless lose out on his second Cup title.
This, folks, is not over.
In 1992, Davey Allison led the points race by 30 going into the finale. But an ill-handling rig spelled disaster for him. It was a wreck -- someone else's wreck -- that opened the door for Alan Kulwicki to take the crown.
If Tony Stewart and the No. 20 team turn in one more strong effort, the title's theirs.
That was one title won on a comeback finish. The only other time it happened was 1979, when "The King" Richard Petty surmounted a measly two-point deficit by finishing fifth and notching five lap-leading bonus points to edge Darrell Waltrip by 11 and win his seventh, and final, Cup title.
On Sunday, Johnson is working with more than a two-point disadvantage. Even 30 points would be significantly more conquerable.
Indeed, there were eight other title races in which the leader maintained points leads similar to Stewart's. None of those turned out so well for the chaser.
The year after Petty stole one from Waltrip, sophomore racer Dale Earnhardt held onto a 29-point lead to beat Cale Yarborough by 19. In 1982, Waltrip figured out how to hold on to a points lead, stretching a 22-point lead into a 72-point title victory. In 1989, Rusty Wallace managed to save enough of his 42-point edge going into the finale to eke out a championship by 12 points. The next year, Earnhardt stretched a six-point advantage to a 26-point win.
More recently, Terry Labonte used a 47-point edge in 1996 to win his second title by 37. And just last year -- the first under the Chase format, which manufactures down-to-the-wire title finishes -- Kurt Busch saved enough of his 18-point lead over Johnson to win by eight.
Which brings us to 2005. Homestead again hosts one of the closest championship battles in history -- the 11th closest, to be exact.
"We're all going to be tested," Johnson said. "Our patience is going to be tested as we keep going here."
And although Johnson will be aided by a Stewart mechanical failure or a title-swallowing wreck for the No. 20 car, he doesn't necessarily need it.
It's possible, if he wins.
It's possible, if he leads laps.
It's possible, if he leads the most laps.
It's possible, if he can just get Stewart on a day one tick below his average.
In that regard, however, Stewart leaves little room for hope that he'll disappoint. In six races at Homestead, the 2002 champ has won twice, finished in the top five three times and finished in the top 10 four times.
"I think it's always going to come down to Homestead," Stewart said. "But nobody is going to be able to say that Homestead was the deciding factor. It's all 10 [races] that make it what it is. But when you're in that battle at the end, you want to make sure Homestead's a place you feel strong going into."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.